Plenty of surprises up its sleeves
5 stars out of five
Dir: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson
Watch carefully, for things are not as they seem in The Prestige. Writer and director Christopher Nolan's hand is quicker than the audience's collective eye, and while he provides plenty of clues along the way, surprising plot twists abound on the way to a stunning finale.
The structure of the entire film is set up in the opening scene, in which Mr. Cutter, a designer and builder of stage illusions played by Michael Caine, explains to a young girl the three stages of any magic trick: the pledge, the turn and the prestige.
Showing her a caged canary, Cutter explains how the magician shows you something ordinary. The second step is to make the ordinary object do something extraordinary, he tells her, collapsing the small cage and making the bird disappear.
"Now if you're looking for the secret, you won't find it. That's why there's a third act called the prestige. This is the part with the twists and turns, where lives hang in the balance, and you see something shocking you've never seen before," Cutter tells the girl, producing the canary from thin air.
The girl turns out to be the daughter of Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), a famous magician facing the hangman for the murder of his archrival and former friend, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman).
Set in late Victorian era London, The Prestige follows Borden and Angier from their early days as friends learning the tricks of their trade. When an escape goes wrong, killing Angier's wife, he seeks revenge on Borden. As the years pass, the two become famous rivals and the competition becomes obsessive with each seeking to sabotage the other. When Borden comes up with an inexplicable, showstopping illusion, Angier goes to exceptional lengths to duplicate and finally, with the help of mysterious genius inventor Nikola Tesla (an understated but magnetic David Bowie), to outshine Borden. Who will take the final bow, however remains a mystery until the last moments of the film.
As he did in Memento, Nolan very deftly manipulates the audience much like a magician, misdirecting our attention to spring surprise after surprise.
While a lesser film might have relied completely on a clever script with a surprise ending (see the works of M. Night Shyamalan), The Prestige provides the total package: a subtle, multilayered script (cowritten with his brother, Jonathan Nolan), smart dialogue, terrific performances by all the principal cast, smooth pacing, beautiful atmospheric cinematography and a jaw-dropping, mind-blowing final act worthy of the film's name.